ADA Requires Workers Be Able to Perform Essential Job Functions

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that workers or applicants not be discriminated against on the basis of a disability, so long as the worker is able to perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable modifications. This is not a blanket requirement that companies accept all workers with disabilities. The caveat that workers must be able to perform essential functions is crucial.headset

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit pointed out in a recent opinion, “The reality is there are some jobs that a person with disabilities are simply unable to perform.” That was deemed to be the case for plaintiff in this instance.

According to court records, plaintiff worked for a telecommunications firm in Tennessee at a call center, where her job as a customer service representative involved answering incoming calls and helping customers with billing and technical support problems. In order to answer those calls, plaintiff had to be physically present at her workstation and logged into the computer. She worked eight-hour shifts, and rotated every six months. During these shifts, customer service representatives had to remain at their work stations, except to use the restroom, to take a half-hour lunch and two pre-scheduled 15-minute breaks. There was no requirement for a per-day minimum, but most representatives generally took on 40 to 50 calls per shift. 

If a representative is not at their work station, incoming calls get routed to other representatives, which can result in increases in customer wait times and reduced speed and quality of customer service. For this reason, the company was strict on its attendance policies. Still, like most companies in the U.S., it was obliged to consider and accept reasonable requests for federal Family Medical Leave Act absences.

Plaintiff’s absence began in 2013 (for most of the year), due to anxiety attacks and depression. From January through July, she did not work, using short-term disability leave and FMLA. She worked for several days in August and then went back on leave in September, using her short-term disability. She remained on leave through the rest of the year and into the following, returning in late January 2014. Her supervisors talked about her attendance record with her in both January and February. She stated she understood the policy. Her evaluation for 2013 was poor, indicating her attendance and punctuality failed to meet expectations. However, she continued to miss work over the next several months.

Then, she was denied a second FMLA leave request because she didn’t meet the eligibility threshold of having worked 1,250 hours in the year prior. She was also initially denied another request for short-term disability leave, with the insurer citing a lack of medical necessity. The company sent her a return to work letter, indicating she’d be fired if she didn’t come back. She talked to her supervisor and explained she couldn’t come back and would be providing additional medical documentation. But even after that information was sent, her request was still denied and another return to work letter issued. She was then fired in July 2014.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination under ADA. She argued that she could have performed her job if she’d been given flexible start times and more breaks throughout the day, and that the company had violated the ADA by failing to provide her with reasonable accommodation.

The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff, finding she was, as a matter of law, disabled. However, in a later ruling, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on all plaintiff’s claims. She appealed, but the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The court ruled plaintiff was not qualified for her job as a customer service representative because she couldn’t perform the essential job function of attending regularly and punctually.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, Jan. 27, 2017, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

EEOC Updates Guidelines on National Origin Discrimination, Jan. 31, 2017, Orange County Disability Employment Lawyer Blog